Sunday, 23 August 2015

Spiritual Struggles, Real-World Consequences (Eph 6:10-20)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Aug 23, 2015)


Privatized Religion

It’s the beginning of sixth grade, and the three new friends throw their lunchbags on the table and get to talking. They talk about which eight graders to avoid. Share mischievous rumors about their new teachers. Speculate boastfully on their chances of making the different sports’ teams. Dare each other to go sit down at the table of cute seventh graders. And as lunch wraps up, they make plans to hang out on the weekend.

Paul says, “Well, I can’t do Sundays, because that’s when church is.” David shakes his head, says, “And I can’t do Saturdays, because my mom said I need to go to synagogue this weekend.” And Mo, with a deep sigh, says, “And I can’t hang out on Friday evening, because my family’s going to the mosque.”

These three boys don’t know it, but they’ve given us a rather common definition of religion. For many in society, religion remains confined to a certain time and a certain space: while we may carry our religious identities everywhere, we only do religion on a particular day and at a particular place. Which is why politics and religion are discussed as though they are two separate things. Politics is what happens in the real world. Religion is what happens, more or less, between a person’s two ears or in the confines of a person’s heart.

The modern world, in other words, has privatized religion.[1] It is in the best interests of the governments and corporations that run much of our world to keep religion locked up in people’s souls, limited to isolated times and places. Corporations would much rather people keep their pious beliefs about compassion and charity tucked away in their hearts, so that they can continue to open their pocketbooks and buy whatever new product is promising happiness. A government would much rather people keep their religious convictions about the divine dignity of each person locked deep away in their inner self, so that they won’t take to the streets to protest laws and practices that might lead to oppression and discrimination.[2]

The powers of our world more or less offer religion a truce, a peace treaty: “[G]o practice the kingdom of God in your heart, on weekends and after hours, and the rest of the time, march in step with the powers that be.”[3]

A Real-World Spirituality

The common assumption underlying this truce is that religion has to do with what you cannot see and that politics and the economy and the rest of the world has to do with what you can see. Religion has to do with visions and dreams and feelings and intuitions, while politics and the economy and the rest of the real world has to do with what’s right in front of your eyes. But our personal experience tells us something different. Our experience tells us that the things we cannot see—like love, hate, envy, greed—are inseparable from the things that we can see, that the spiritual is inextricably linked with real-world effects.

One of my new roommates has a beagle, and every time he comes home from work, you’d think the pair of them were reuniting after years of separation. It’s like I’m not in the room: he’s down on all fours, butting heads with his buddy, returning sloppy dog kisses with kisses of his own. Try telling him that the love he and his beagle feel isn’t real. Love is just as real as the kisses it leads to. Hate is just as real as the violence it leads to. Greed is just as real as the obsessive consumerism it leads to. The spiritual is part and parcel of the real world.

So how then do we take a text like the one we have today, where Paul seems to focus exclusively on the spiritual? Where he says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against dark and cosmic powers, and so instead of recommending iron and steel for the struggle he urges spiritual virtues like truth, righteousness, peace, and faith?

On the one hand, we could read the text the way the powers that be in our world would want us to read it, that is, as a text that has nothing to do with the world outside our bodies. We could read it as a set of instructions on how we should try to have better thoughts, stronger beliefs, a purer heart. We could think of these dark and cosmic powers that Paul talks about as spiritual super-villains that live in another dimension, as creatures that we could see if only we had the right set of goggles.

But that would be gravely missing the point. The whole point of spiritual struggle is real-world change.[4] “On earth as it is in heaven.” The dark and cosmic powers that Paul refers to are not spiritual villains against which God and the angels do battle in some other world, but are the very things that prevent the kingdom of God from breaking in on this world, the very things that prevent heaven on earth. The dark and cosmic powers are tied up with the powers that be: with assumptions, ideologies, and ways of thinking. Greed. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Consumerism. Ways of thinking that turn people into numbers, into dollar signs, ways of thinking that label people either normal or strange, that say “no” to the image of God in certain people. These are the dark and cosmic powers that Jesus fought against when he reached out to include Samaritans and women and children and the lepers in his kingdom, when he reached out to welcome those whom the powers that be had generally excluded.

Real-World Consequences

And look where it got him. The world does not take kindly to people who question the way things are.[5] The scary truth is, the spiritual armor of God does not defend against real-world wickedness. If anything, it emboldens us to step more confidently into the midst of such wickedness, where anything might happen. The shield of faith will indeed quench the arrows of the evil one (6:16) but not the nails driven into the cross, the bullets from a gun. The shoes that make us ready to proclaim peace (6:15) do not promise us a peaceful passage but instead a risky journey into places that need peace, places of hostility and oppression.

About thirty-five years ago, a priest in El Salvador named Oscar Romero put on the armor of God. And he went to proclaim peace and justice in a nation ravaged by an oppressive government, where the poor and the needy received kick in the side rather than a helping hand. One day he found himself speaking in front of a number of soldiers, who were regularly tasked with killing civilians, and he offered them these words: “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. … In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”[6] The next day, as Oscar was serving mass to his parishioners, a car stopped outside the church. A single shot rang out. Oscar’s body was broken. His blood spilt.

A Different Kind of Power

Because both Jesus and Oscar wore the armor of God and both suffered death at the hands of the powers that be, I cannot help but wonder if the whole point of Paul’s armor image is to suggest not a similarity between the armor of the world and God’s armor but a contrast. A Roman centurion’s armor is one kind of power: the kind that enforces the soldier’s will upon the people around him. God’s armor is of a different kind of power. If the examples of Jesus and Oscar are any indication, God’s power is one that operates not by force or compulsion but by an enduring, undying love. A love that lives past our deaths.

I don’t mean to suggest that point of Paul’s message is that we all must prepare for a violent end like the ones Jesus and Oscar endured. But rather that the armor of God prepares us not merely for a fight inside our minds or hearts, but for a risky life lived in the real world. It’s no coincidence that Paul refers to himself as an “ambassador in chains” (6:20). The armor of God takes us not away from the real-world but straight into it, where our faith may land us in uncomfortable places. The armor of God enables us to live for what is true rather than what is convenient, to proclaim peace in in places where there is no peace, to work for rightful relationships among a broken world, to hold an unswerving faith in the powerless power of God’s love. The armor of God enables us to stand firm when the powers that be put us in chains; or more simply, when people raise eyebrows, when it would be so much easier to retreat into our privileged corners of the world.

Where Does the Armor of God Enable Us to Walk?

But perhaps it’s difficult to identify with spiritual superheroes like Paul and Oscar. So the last question that must be asked is, “What about us? Where does the armor of God enable us to walk?” The answer might begin closer to home than you’d think. 

I’m reminded of a simple scene I witnessed at a church back in England. A street drifter had drifted in off the street, and at the time of communion, he stood up and began stumbling forward. He was half-speaking, half-praying, mumbling some of what seemed to be nonsense, making a bit of a commotion. A number sitting in the pews looked about, wondering who was going to tidy up this strange scene. But no one got up. No one except the minister. And with a kind smile hiding behind his bemused eyes, he stood firmly in front of his congregation and served the man communion. Sure, he may have been risking the wrath of some of his parishioners, those who would have preferred a proper communion over a shambles such as this and would as likely as not later tie the minister up in emotional chains…but how better to live the truth of God’s unconditional welcome, to proclaim the good news of God’s peace, to reconcile among different groups of people, to let God’s kingdom come on earth, than to eat and drink at the Lord’s table with a man whom most would never think about eating and drinking with, a man whom the powers that be would not even acknowledge?

For what and for whom do we need to stand firm in our community, our workplaces, our circles of life? Where does the armor of God enable us to walk?


[1] Cf. Kim Knott, The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (London: Equinox, 2005), 62.

[2] See Russell D. McCutcheon, Religion and the Domestication of Dissent, or How to Live in a Less than Perfect Nation (London: Equinox, 2005) for a broader discussion of the interests that various world authorities have in keeping “religion” delimited to the private realm.

[3] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), loc. 6544. Here Caputo exposes the interests invested in the concept of private religion, namely that such a religion’s adherents would remain subject to the world’s “powers that be.”

[4] Thus Eph 1:10, in which the Pauline writer asserts that the ultimate desire of God is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This ultimate eschaton, or in-gathering of all things, is one that collapses the distinction between heaven and earth, between “things in heaven and things on earth.” The kingdom of God that dwells in our hearts, in the heavenly realm, becomes none other than the kingdom in which the material world lives. On earth as it is in heaven.

[5] Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 508, cites Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran martyr, who said: “It is a dangerous thing to be a Christian in our world.”

[6] Christopher M. White, The History of El Salvador (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2009), 100.


  1. Jonathan, your real life story at the conclusion gave the message a human face. You're building a good body of work. All the best.

  2. Jonathan, your real life story at the conclusion gave the message a human face. You're building a good body of work. All the best.